Category Archives: religion

Art: To Offend or Not

This last week in Vancouver a mysterious life-size statue appeared. It’s not far from my place but I missed seeing it. Let me first describe the area. Clark Dr. is the truck route in and out of Vancouver. If you’re coming over the border from the US it’s one of the routes that lead you into the city on the east side. Clark and 4th Ave. are a juncture with a major road going west into the city. The SkyTrain station tracks go over the top and a college campus is nearby.

East Van cross, Ken Lum, red devil statue, public art, art statements

The East Van cross sits at Clark Dr. and 6th Ave. Photo credit: vancouverisawesome.com

Riding high above the tracks is the East Van cross by artist Ken Lum. I’ve already written about my opinion of this cross in Ho Hum, Ken Lum. At night it glows white against the evening sky. Overall this is a blue-collar, industrial area filled mostly with cars zooming by. People don’t linger here. There are no coffee shops or funky places in which to hang. There’s an autobody shop, an auto glass shop, a few warehouses. Nothing special. So I suppose every piece of art adds something to a dreary commuter route.

Now, this other statue I mentioned wasn’t commissioned by the city or through some high-end artist. In fact it’s very much like the graffiti that adorns the walls near by. It was made and placed by the unknown artists who feel a need to make a comment or change the streets of our city.

red devil statue, East Van, Clark Drive, Angelo Branca

The area where Christopher Columbus and a red devil once rested. Photo credit: http://www.allele.com

The area where the statue was erected has had a bare podium for years. It supposedly once held a statue of Christopher Columbus to honor Angelo Branca, a prominent Italian-Canadian judge who had once been a middleweight boxing champion. East Van has Vancouver’s largest Italian population. Around 2000, that stature disappeared and ended up in Hastings Park, supposedly rescued from a bad location. And it is a bad location. People don’t go to this area for a picnic, while I’m sure drug addicts do go there. So this odd, Stonehenge-like park was empty for years.

red devil statue, naked devil, East Van, guerilla art, East Van cross

The devil is in the details.

No one knows who erected the statue or when, but a life-size red devil appeared in the last few weeks. It was very red, very identifiable as the classic red Satan and was wearing nothing but a very large erect penis. Suddenly, this unknown un-park (which I remember with the Christopher Columbus statue and barren for years) was a place of pilgrimage. Tourists and locals came by to take pictures and view the goods. From the SkyTrain, if anyone wasn’t looking down at their phones, they probably got a good view of the lil devil.

Was it just a prank, an idol placed by Satanists, guerrilla art? I think it was much more than that and a statement. I’d already stated that to place a piece of blatantly religious art such as the East Van cross, whether hearkening back to early neon art history or East Van heritage or not, was offensive in its own way when we live in a much more multicultural and multi-religious world. But if we take in this somewhat cliché, a bit tacky, definitely bawdy sculpture of a devil, we have a piece that could also be considered offensive.

red devil statue, East Van, Christian symbolism

The cross overlooks the devil, a piece of art that completes a set in Christian iconography. Pic from gangsters out blog.

Perhaps the unknown artists wanted to show that what is offensive to one may not be to another. And when you look at it in another light, these two pieces of art actually complement each other. Yes, they do. They are both Christian iconography. The devil’s right hand is making a devil horns symbol but it is also pointing up…to the cross that stands above and to his right. Salvation and damnation; what could be more Christian and recognizably so? To me, having the devil standing there actually made the cross less offensive and kind of balanced the piece with more depth about a particular religion and its recognizable symbols. However, the city didn’t see it that way and took it down.

While I never liked the cross, I do believe certain types of art are meant to provoke thought and discussion. The devil brought that out and truly lived up to the reputation of a devil; he sowed unrest, disturbed the piece, was ribald and drew attention. Here’s to the unseen artists who thought to complete Ken Lum’s sentence.

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Book Review: The Warded Man

fantasy, epic fantasy, Peter Brett

The Warded Man was released in the US in 2009, Harper Voyager imprint

The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett came out in 2008 in the UK (as The Painted Man) and 2009 in North America. It’s the first of the Demon Cycle. Yes, there are spoilers.

This fantasy takes place in world that once had the age of science but something happened and demons from the core (of the world) materialized every night, bent on destroying humans. Small villages and hamlets use wards on posts and homes that keep the corelings at bay. Everyone knows how to ward, but some are better than ever. If a ward is drawn wrong, or gets marred, it leaves a way in for the corelings to destroy everything. Larger towns have warded boardwalks  so one can cautiously get place to place but pretty much the night is owned by the corelings.

The “free” cities are encircled by huge stone walls, with the streets lined with stone. Everything is warded with sigils by the guild of warders, and demons rarely get in. But still people only very carefully venture into the night. This leads to an isolated society, where travel more than a day is difficult and people must ask for succor in another place before the sun goes down. The centuries of isolation has lead to various places jealously guarding the wards they use, as opposed to sharing. News and merchandise must still get from town to town and this is left to Messengers and Jongleurs. The jongleurs bring the news and tales and a respite from the terror, with their songs and acrobatics. The Messengers are combinations of merchant, knight and postman and hardened souls used to the vagaries of the night world. They carry portable ward circles, warded shields, weaponry and a host of scars.

The elemental air, rock, wood, sand, water and fire demons. While the wind corelings seemed similar to pterodactyls they are terrifying creatures of nightmare. The story begins with eleven-year-old Arlen, a good warder who witnesses the coring of his mother. The subsequent search for healing lead him on a journey to one of the free cities where he apprentices as a warder and messenger. Over ten years pass in the span of Arlen’s life as he hones his skills, faces betrayals and alienates himself from humankind in his relentless search for the old battle wards and artifacts, and his vengeance against the demons.

Leesha is a young girl, unjustly marred by a braggart fiance and spiteful mother. She apprentices to the extremely old, cranky and mean herb gatherer Bruna. Leesha’s gains independence and eventually travels to help neighboring towns. But she runs into her own hardships and terror when she returns to help her village and the Warded Man rescues her and Rojer.

Rojer lost his family at a young age and was raised by a drunkard jongleur. With his damaged half hand he’s never very good at juggling but is a passable acrobat and plays a mean fiddle. On the road with his master they meet calamity and then Rojer meets Leesha. He has found that the sound of his fiddle can repel the demons and Leesha knows how to make a burning liquid that can injure the previously thought indestructible demons.

While these two have their own threads as they grow and learn their strengths and fears, Arlen is the main focus.He ends up in desert city Krasia, the only place where they actively fight to repel the demons. Arlen hopes to pass on his discoveries of the battle wards but is betrayed by a culture where he is considered an outsider.

Overall I found the story engaging and it kept me reading. The action is clear, but I would have preferred descriptions of the characters to come more as part of the story as opposed to exposition. But the exposition is light. Most of the logic for the warding works. Demons can’t go through stone but can go through wood. The wards have to be in a circle to work on buildings, but you can repel with a ward on an object such as a shield. The battle wards were lost because the demons had been expunged and people forgot. I just don’t quite see how three centuries can go by where people put wards on shields but never put them on swords or spears.

There are two aspects I disliked about this book; one is endemic in many medieval fantasies. Game of Thrones suffers from it as well, even if Aria and Brienneare are exceptions. But they are exceptions in a patriarchal world where women are still chattels and brood mares and expected to be good and silent wives. In many cases, these worlds are styled on our own history, if given different trappings such as species, magic or geography. But I’m getting heartily sick of the role of women always being virgin, mother, whore or sacred warrior (Joan of Arc anyone?). In this way it’s still a man’s world. While Leesha and Bruna are strong women, they don’t step outside the traditional roles. If exploring a patriarchy and the liberation of women was the goal, then this would have been more acceptable.

The other aspect I really hated was the Krasians. They’re a desert nation who put no god before the Creator and the Deliverer is his prophet, where their women are veiled head to foot and outsiders are considered dirt. They eat figs and dates and dress in baggy pants. Medieval Middle East, with not even a veil to disguise it. At this point I threw up my hands. Do terrorists always have to be Middle Eastern? Yes, there are plenty of white-skinned bad guys in this book, but the thin veneer of our world’s cultures made me sigh in exasperation. I knew what the second book was going to be about. The betraying Krasians steal the magic spear and decide to take over the world, delivering people from demons but changing them into believers of the new faith. And the Warded Man must stop the holy war.

I find it annoying to have our world with just a touch of different icing for fantasies. I liked the book well enough and the overall premise of battling these corelings, but I don’t think it went far enough. I’d be tempted to read the second book but I’m not dying to. I saw enough of this world to feel I had a complete story. I’d give The Painted Man three and a half wards.

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Tesseracts 17 Interview: Ed Willett

Ed Willett, SF, speculative fiction, Tesseracts 17, Canadian authors, faith, spirituality

Ed Willett is author of more than 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. Read his story in Tesseracts 17.

Ed Willett is our only Saskatchewan author in Tesseracts 17: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast. I would say this puts us nearly halfway through Canada but once I hit the Atlantic provinces for interviews I’ll come back across the northern parts of Canada.

CA: “Path of Souls” is a beautifully rendered world, told by an outsider who makes it home. But that home is in some ways a gilded cage. What was the most important aspect of this tale for you?

For me the heart of the story is the decision by one individual to take responsibility: to do what must be done, what is the right thing to do, despite the personal consequences. That is, I think, the only definition of heroism that makes sense to me. Whether that decision makes sense to someone outside that individual’s personal mindset is another matter, of course. The actions of the main character might be seen as foolish in the extreme: she essentially throws away her previous life for many long years of service to an alien religion. But she is convinced that what she is doing is what is right, and that doing what is right is more important than her own personal wants and desires.

Over and over in my fiction I find myself returning to the theme of individual responsibility. In so much of the world, especially in the realm of politics, we pretend as if people are defined by a few simple characteristics: gender, skin color, income, place of residence. “Can such-and-such a party’s policies resonate with voters-of-a-particular-ethnic group?”, etc. But none of us are defined by the various groups into which we fall—not entirely. Each of us is an individual. We build our lives from a series of individual decisions, and while the easiest path to follow is always that most often taken by those with whom we associate, we have the power, the free will, to break from that path, to take “the road less travelled,” as Robert Frost memorably put it. And that moment, when an individual truly acts as an individual and separates him or herself from the herd, especially if that moment arises out of a powerful moral sense, is a moment that greatly interests me as a writer.

anthology, speculative fiction, SF, fantasy, Canadian authors

Tesseracts 17 is now out with tales from Canadian writers that span all times and places.

The title of the piece is “Path of Souls,” but it’s really about the path taken by a single soul: an individual who makes a difficult decision to do what she has become absolutely convinced is the right thing to do, despite the cost to herself.

CA: In one sense it’s religious, or spiritual, but there is a dark side that the outsider discovers. Do you think people see the inherent pitfalls in their own faiths?

Religious belief is a powerful thing, as we know from our own world, where every day religious fanatics blow themselves and others up in suicide attacks, murder sleeping students in their beds for the sin of getting a western education, terrorize shopping malls, and on and on. They are, to carry on my answer to the previous question, individuals who have made a decision to abandon all further individuality in the service of what they see as a greater cause. It’s a decision that seems almost incomprehensible to those of us who do not share their convictions. But within their own minds, they are doing what is right and holy, what must be done to make the world a better place—although their version of a better place would be a nightmare to those of us who do not share their belief. By my previous definition, they are heroes: not to us, not at all, but certainly to themselves.

Religious belief seems to be hard wired into humans (and, in my story, into aliens as well). It can be a powerful force for good and beauty, and a powerful force for evil and destruction. Those at the extremes of religious belief do not, I think, see any inherent pitfalls. When you have given over your individual responsibility to orders that you believe are coming directly from God, there’s very little room for doubt. There are, of course, millions of believers who do have room in their beliefs for doubt and questioning. Some religious belief systems are more open to internal questioning than others, and those, I think, are at less risk of turning to the dark side (okay, that reference is from Star Wars, which is perhaps a step down from Robert Frost, but still, it fits!).

So, do “people see the inherent pitfalls in their own faiths?” Some do, some don’t. Once again, everything comes down to the individual.

CA: This is also a story of reflection, a journey in and of itself. Many spiritual paths are just that, journeys of discovery. Is this a theme you have explored before?

I think all characters in my stories are on journeys of discovery, because characters who remain unchanged by the events of the story are boring. So it’s really a theme I explore over and over, in pretty much everything I write.

CA: Will we be seeing other tales on this particular world, or are you moving on to new worlds?

This is the only tale I’ve ever set or anticipate setting in this particular world. But I’m very fond of it, partly because it’s one of those stories whose genesis I can pinpoint with some accuracy. A few years ago, Globe Theatre here in Regina held, perhaps three years in a row, a fundraising event called Lanterns on the Lake. People bought and made paper lanterns and came down to the shores of Wascana Lake to light them and parade them. The image of that endless string of lights stretching down to the moonlit water struck a chord with me that eventually resulted in “The Paths of Souls.”

It’s also a story I’m fond of because it’s a bit of a tribute to a book I absolutely loved as a young science fiction reader: Andre Norton’s Moon of Three Rings. That idea of humans coming to a world they think they understand and falling into trouble because they don’t really understand it at all was something I wanted to use, and I also wanted to capture the deep sense of strangeness and wonder Norton’s book woke in me when I was 12 or so. I think maybe I manage it, at least a little.

I hope readers think so, too.

Edward Willett is the author of more than forty books of fiction and non-fiction for children, young adults and adults. Born in Silver City, New Mexico, he moved to Canada with his parents from Texas when he was eight and grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where he began his career as a newspaper reporter, becoming news editor before moving to Regina as communications officer for the then-fledgling Saskatchewan Science Centre. For the past 20 years he’s been a fulltime freelance writer. Ed won the Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English in 2009 for his science fiction novel Marseguro (DAW Books). His newest book is Right to Know (Bundoran Press). November will see the release of Masks, the first book the Masks of Aygrima fantasy trilogy for DAW Books, written under the pseudonym E.C. Blake, and in the spring, Coteau Books in Regina will release Song of the Sword, first book in a five-book YA modern-day fantasy series collectively called The Shards of Excalibur, with subsequent books to appear at six-month intervals. Shadows, the second book in the Masks of Aygrima, will be out next summer, along with an as-yet untitled sequel to Right to Know. In addition to writing, Ed is a professional actor and singer. He continues to live in Regina with his wife, Margaret Anne, their daughter, Alice, and their cat, Shadowpaw.

 Ed is online at www.edwardwillett.com, on Twitter @ewillett, and can also be found on Facebook.

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Tesseracts 17 Interview: Lisa Smedman

Tesseracts 17 has authors from across Canada. Today’s interview is with BC writer Lisa Smedman, a long time writer and game designer. Her story “2020 Vision” examines the logical side of religion.

anthology, speculative fiction, SF, fantasy, Canadian authors

Tesseracts 17 is out this month with tales from Canadian writers that span all times and places.

CA: Lisa, your story “2020 Vision” looks at cultlike behavior, politics, and the use of social media. It’s a very strong and disturbing, even ironic, social commentary. Religious topics can always be a very sensitive hotbed of opinion, or even rabid denunciations. What fascinated you enough to write such a story?

The story started from an anecdote a friend told, about being asked whether she believed in God. She said, “No, but I believe in Santa Claus.” That got me thinking about the nature of belief, and blind “faith” being the basis of so many religions. One could just as easily assert that Santa Claus really does exist, utilizing the same “prove he doesn’t” arguments used to assert that God exists.

The story also sprang from the idea that any religion that doesn’t allow one to question its practices and teachings, that doesn’t allow (or even punishes) its followers to laugh at the religion’s foibles, is setting a dangerous precedent, since it sets up the possibility of religious leaders twisting the religion to their own ends — ends that go unquestioned and are blindly obeyed.

To paraphrase the Emma Goldman quote about dancing and revolution: “A religion without laughter is not a religion worth having.”

Another big influence was the movie Life of Brian. In it, an ordinary, bumbling man is mistaken for Christ, and people begin to blindly follow him, hanging upon his every word and finding deep religious significance in his every action. My favorite scene is when a mob of religious fanatics is following him, and he discards a drinking gourd and loses one sandal. Half of the mob cries “We must follow the gourd!” and the other half cries, “No, we must follow the shoe!” and a fight breaks out over these two “sacred” objects as each half of the mob turns on the other. Religions are constantly dividing into smaller and smaller factions, every single one of them convinced that they are the “true” faith.

Canadian writers, speculative fiction, religious satire, SF

Lisa Smedman is the author of 17 novels, and a game designer.

I’ve often reflected upon why so many religions start out with the message “be nice to each other” and wind up teaching their followers to hurt, with words or deeds, or even to kill.

Life of Brian was boycotted by some Christians when it first hit movie theaters. Ironically, it portrays Christ and his message quite faithfully. When Christ says in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the meek,” a listener too far away to hear clearly interprets it as, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” That so eloquently sums up how the original message of a religion can be mangled, by accident, due to translation errors (or be willfully skewed) and yet still regarded as gospel.

Another influence was a talk by the Dalai Lama I attended back in 1981. When asked about religions other than Buddhism, he compared the world’s religions to a smorgasbord, and encouraged people to “eat” whatever dishes most nourished them. Instead of saying “my religion is the only true one” he embraced all faiths that led one to become a better person. That, in my opinion, is what a religion should be: a practice one follows, “eating” only those portions of it that ring true, and rejecting (or perhaps politely declining) the rest.

CA: Do you think fanaticism is ever likely to have logic?

There is a “logic” to fanaticism, but it is a twisted logic. If you ask no questions, pull no threads, the fabric of belief hangs together. But pull one thread and it all unravels. Of course, the fanatics are wearing the “emperor’s clothes,” and never notice the holes.

CA: Have you explored this theme in other work?

I’ve explored many themes in my science fiction and fantasy writing. One I keep coming back to is the nature of identity. As an anthropology major, cultures fascinate me, especially the question of who “belongs” to a social construct and who doesn’t. How groups overlap, how boundaries mutate. Points of commonality that allow us to see other people as “one of us” and the myriad of ways we can divide “us” and “them.” We tend to see things in polarities: A or Z, ignoring all of the letters of the alphabet in between. This theme can be found in 2020 Vision, in the notion of who belongs to a religious group… and who does not, who is “in” and who is “out.”

A native Vancouverite, Lisa Smedman is the author of 17 science fiction and fantasy novels, numerous short stories, two best-selling books on Vancouver’s history, and dozens of roleplaying adventures, primarily for Dungeons & Dragons. She also writes plays and screenplays. Her fiction explores both Canada’s past (the steampunk Apparition Trail, set in the 1800s) and its possible futures. A journalist for many years, she currently teaches game design at the Art Institute of Vancouver. She hosts a biweekly writers group that grew out of the B.C. Science Fiction Association 30 years ago. She is also a mom to two humans, three cats and a pug.

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Hawksely Workman: The God That Comes

Hawksley Workman. Photo from his site.

Hawksley Workman. Photo from his site.

I meant to write about this right away but I’ve been busy. Last week, I got to see Hawksley Workman in The God That Comes, part of Vancouver’s PuSh Festival. It took place at Performance Works on Granville Island. When I bought the (very reasonable) tickets all I knew was that I liked Hawksley Workman’s music. I have two of his albums (For Him and the Girls, Between the Beautifuls). But I didn’t know if the piece at the festival was music, or a play or both. And in a way, it was indeed both, a work in progress.

I was surprised to see how intimate the performance space was, set up like a lounge or cabaret. The venue also doubled as Club PuSh where you could hang after, drink and dance to DJ tunes. The show was introduced by a drag queen, who I believe called herself the Queen of East Van. She was done up with a wild black mop of hair and a slinky, leopard print shiny, long gown. As the show began I knew exactly why a drag queen opened this show and why she was dressed as she was.

Workman’s show is described as:

Hawksley Workman, Bacchus, Dionysus, wine, music, maenads

Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, theatre and madness.

It tells the story of a king whose subjects revolt against his oppressive rule to worship the Greco-Roman god of wine Bacchus (aka Dionysus) in a hedonistic spiritual revolution. This concept album for the stage, created with 2b Theatre Company’s Christian Barry is a work-in-progress that fuses the chaotic revelry of a rock concert with the intimacy of theatrical storytelling.

Hawksley Workman began by coming out on a stage festooned drums, a keyboard, various stringed and other instruments and three sytrofoam wig heads on stands. One wore an ash-blonde flip-style wig, one a red boa, and one a military hat. There was also a white, headless mannequin in a red strapless dress. Hawksley was wearing a jacket with military style in its lines.

He first read a story, with a glass of wine in hand, about a king who is suspicious of his people frolicking in the hills with a new god. Even his mother is going, so he dresses up as a woman and, unrecognized, is torn apart. This is the short version of The Bacchae, an ancient Greek play by Eurpides, about the mythological King Pentheus who meets the new god Dionysus and his followers, the women who become maenads.

Maenads were to be feared. These followers of Dionysus embraced his divine madness and were rumored to tear apart animals and mortals in their ecstatic, wine-induced frenzy. While there is no evidence of the dismembering of humans or animals ever happening  the maenadic and Dionysian rituals did indeed take place.

Workman’s one-man show included songs that covered the king’s feelings, his military might, his curiosity and fear, his demise. It also covers the ecstasy of Dionysus and how Dionysus was viewed. Unlike the twelve Olympian gods or the Titans before them, Dionysus was originally a foreign god, chthonic and believed to have come from another culture. He was depicted with ivy and grapes wound in his black hair, often wearing women’s dress, which, in ancient Greece, meant a different cut of chiton to the men’s chiton, and effeminate of feature.  He was the androgyne that women followed. For a culture that constrained women, this appealed to their wild side and they were allowed to indulge it during his festival. Dionysus’ myth includes being torn apart himself by the Titans and ingested and reborn. In fact, he is one of a long string of dying and reborn gods and precedes Jesus. Now it begins to make sense why the drag queen was perfect for introducing the show.

maenad, gods, Dionysus, Hawksley Worrkman, frenzy, divine ecstasy, mad god

Maenads were female followers of Dionysus who celebrated in ecstatic frenzy.

Hawksley Workman’s songs ranged from impassioned and tragic to hysterically funny as when he sang Ukelele Boy, about Dionysus. For another piece he picks up the top half of the dressed torso and then plays a harmonica positioned beneath the dress so that it looks very sexual to the audience who see’s his head at the level of the genitals. When Pentheus discovers the maenadic orgy, Workman takes a well-known line “my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord” and tosses it  on its side, giving more meanings to what type of coming is happening.

For the ecstatic ritual he sings, “Won’t your ride with me…our feet pound the earth with pleasure so deep…won’t your ride with me.” This lead into Workman stomping out a staccato rhythm with his feet and two poles in his hands. Very deep, very visceral. After the maenads realize they have torn apart the king, Hawksley’s lines include “Can you believe that his blood came out red?” and “salt in his tears.” Note that I was mesmerized and writing notes in the dark so these lines could be off a bit.

Hawksley Workman used the heads as props, sometimes wearing the boa or the hat, sometimes talking to the head. Under his modern vest he wore a purple shirt and one of his instruments had a leopard skin patterned strap. All of these small details, including that glass of wine, were significant as they are symbols of Dionysus; red, purple, leopards (Dionysus is almost always shown with a leopard skin across his shoulder), wine.

The performance was wacky, invigorating, funny, sad, and extremely original. I’ve liked Workman’s music before because of the originality of the tunes and the lyrics. The God That Comes blended this well, and showed his creative genius. He definitely researched Dionysus and the Maenads and embraced them to write such a powerful show. This touched me on several levels. I intimately know the tale of Dionysus and the maenads. I do hope this comes out as an album, but I wished I could have seen the show again. I’ve already told several friends to watch for Workman if he’s come to their city. He’s worth seeing and I very much appreciated being close enough to feel part of the show. I raise ten glasses of wine to Hawksley Workman. And I can say that I may have been the only person sitting there that night who has been a maenad. Io Dionysus.

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Body Adornment or Modification

body adoarnment, body modification, piercing, tattoos, body ornaments, fetish,

This image shows to types of body decoration, neither permanent: jewelery and mehndi. Creative Commons: Henna Designs

I’ve had some interesting comments on the post about genital bleaching. Some people defend it as just another way of decorating ourselves, such as having tattoos or piercings. This is actually inaccurate. While a tattoo or a piercing is a body modification, it is also body adornment or decoration. True, there are some piercings that veer from being only decoration (and used for enhancement of sensations or fetishism–bondage, humiliation, etc.) but for the majority it is about decorating the body in some way.

This is extreme body adornment and modification. Creative Commons Boing Boing

This is extreme body adornment and modification. Creative Commons Boing Boing

It’s true that humanity has been doing this as long as we’ve been building shelters and making things. Stuff…adornments, decorations, artifacts are what define civilizations. It’s an inherent part of our nature. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a vibrant fashion industry, laws and rules throughout the ages regulating clothing and dyes and styles, nor many types of jewellery. So, yes humans have been decorating themselves forever and continue to do so except for those religions that try to suppress human nature.

But a pure body modification is not necessarily adornment. Sometimes it’s a medical necessity, such as a disfigurement that is painful or limiting of a person’s movement. It might be surgery after an illness, disease or accident that requires a modification. Or it might be for decoration. Obviously, piercings modify the body’s structure to some degree. Any piercing you can see is one of decoration, though it can mean more. Those that you can’t see, such as breasts, genitalia or the subcutaneous implants might be body adornment as well. Like I said, some people do these piercings for ritualistic or fetishistic reasons. It may give them a sexual thrill, indicate they are into some form of fetishistic situation such as domination or submission, be a form of emotional catharsis, or be part of a religious practice.

I suppose anal bleaching could be religious. I certainly don’t know all of the spiritual practices out there. However, it seems that unless you’re a porn star where your butthole is displayed on screen that in fact it’s not decoration, so comparing a pierced ear or a tattooed arm to a bleached anus is not the same thing at all. I’d be happy to hear arguments that indicate this falls under decorating the body as opposed to modifying. Yes, both could be seen as forms of beautification and can definitely fall under fetish, or body modification. In this case when one has a nose job, a scar removed, a circumcision, a breast implant, or the genitalia bleached, it is body modification, whether it is for health reasons or vanity. I will still maintain that a person who worries that their labia isn’t pretty enough or their butthole of the right shade, has got their priorities mixed up.

skin bleaching, vanity, body modification, adornment, skin, blemishes

Skin whitening can be done to remove discolorations caused by sun or birthmarks but do you really need it where the sun don’t shine? Creative Commons: Tribune

This sort of worry is what creates a society where anorexia runs rampant, where we’re stuck on any flaw or imperfection as bad because we watch movies or look at magazines where people are lit, done up in make up and airbrushed to godlike proportions. Relationships become harder to maintain because they’re based on superficial forms of attraction. This isn’t about being confident; it’s about lacking confidence so much that you worry about what anyone will think of every aspect of your body.

We’re losing perspective. Personality and being human is what really matters, and going down the road of worrying about the shade of your genitalia, how your pubic hair curls, whether your toenails grow the right thickness and if your neck is long enough is trying to change how we were born. It’s an unending battle and a slippery slope. Michael Jackson is a fine example of someone who couldn’t stop trying to be someone else, to the point of having extreme cosmetic surgery and bleaching his skin so he looked less black. His talent was in his voice and his musical skills. His downfall was in his quest to be someone else.

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Traveling in Europe: Antwerp Part II

Europe 2011: Antwerp click to enter album

Most of these memories are from my second day but in some cases it’s a mix of the two days in Antwerp. I was actually kind of glad that I decided not to go to Brussels. I was still feeling somewhat sick and my feet were starting to hurt from all the walking. I went to St. Paul’s Church and possibly St. James’ Church. In fact, I’m not sure anymore if I did go to the second one, and it’s possible one of these churches didn’t allow pictures inside. St. Paul’s church had the statues of calvary outside, with rough hewn stones forming a grotto. I couldn’t tell if it was of recent or older centuries but while St. Paul’s was of an earlier era, the calvary statues were added in the early 1800s I believe. It was in one of these many cathedrals, where I listened to piped in organ music, looking at the patterns of light through stained glass, staring at carved wooden and stone statues and admiring triptychs by the masters that I thought, even if a person wasn’t religious they would be hard-pressed to not feel moved by all the fantastic accomplishments and beauty of humanity.

Shops opened late on Monday because, as one person told me, people might be hung over still. 🙂 I wandered around the old area and noticed there were enough chocolate, frites and waffle shops. The Belgians love their chocolate like the Dutch love their meat.

While I still had to work at dodging bicyclists and nearly got run over twice; it’s not really clear who has the right of way so I always tried to look in all directions. I think the order is first trams, then cars, then bikes then pedestrians, almost reversed from Canada. Most of the street corners have fewer lights and cars and trams drive down the same narrow streets. At one point the tram was stuck because someone had parked too close to the track. The tram drivers kept ringing the bell for about ten minutes till the guy ran back and moved his car.

food, travel, Antwerp, Belgium, portions, tourism, history

This was a great lunch with three large pieces of halibut. About 17 euros including wine.

More people smoke than I’m used to but it didn’t seem as prevalent as Holland, however no matter where I went I seemed to smell cigarettes and people can sit on restaurant patios and smoke. I had a smoked halibut salad for lunch, which was quite large, making up for the 15 euros I paid. The portions are more than I’m used to. Unless ordering a bottle of wine, it was only one type of house wine so there was no point in asking for a type. At 3.5 euros a glass it was more reasonable than the water. Chocolate isn’t that cheap but the frites are, which come with an array of flavored mayo sauces. Being Canadian I’m used to dunking my fries in flavored mayo so it wasn’t that odd.  I wandered into a few stores and found shoes really expensive as well, which curtailed me buying any.

St. Paul's interior. This life size statue of Mary (holding a plate with eyes) has had the stain rubbed off of her hand from centuries of worshippers.

I actually wandered along the Scheldt River the day before, which is one of the biggest shipping ports in Europe. There is a plague commemorating Canadian troops liberating the city in WWII, and a couple of statues. Walking farther along is Het  Steen, which means the rock. It’s the oldest fortification in Antwerp and is rather small when you think of it as a castle. There wasn’t a lot to see as it was locked up (probably considered a museum) but it has a good imposing look to it.

I ran into an Egyptian-Belgian and he insisted in taking me to the best waffle shop where I had a waffle with chocolate sauce. I’m actually more used to waffles being like quilted pancakes but this was so airy that it was easy to eat and tasty. Down near my bed and breakfast was an area of the city that housed Art Nouveau buildings. While this man would have loved to show me around for several hours, the light was going to be gone soon and I love Art Nouveau. I made my way to the area and took some pictures of the truly amazing architecture from about 1910-1920.

That evening I at near the B&B in a square which had several restaurants. I had mussels and when the came in the giant pot with several slices of bread I was stunned. I ate nothing else and couldn’t even finish the mussels. Here in Vancouver, that meal would have fed three, but then the price was about the cost of three portions. I certainly didn’t go hungry.  After I walked down to this cafe and sat outside writing in my journal and having a couple of glasses of wine. These two women bought me a drink and we talked. One was on her way to Seattle for her sister’s wedding and was considering moving there, much to her friend’s surprise. Then three men arrived, with one being of the flaming variety of gay. He was very friendly and began chatting with me, telling me to join their table. Partway through the evening he said he loved me, but oh, not that way. I smiled

Art Nouveau, Antwerp, Belgium, architecture, history, buildings, travel

One sample of a fantastic Art Nouveau balcony and architecture.

and said that was fine, I knew that.  (In fact, I saw a fair larger gay population in Antwerp than I did in Amsterdam.) His friends were getting mad at him for not talking with them and then at one point, the one guy (two were from Hungary) whose English wasn’t that good started yelling at me and blaming me for all the “horrible” things Canada was doing to the Indians.

I said it wasn’t that simple or black and white and that yes there were good and bad things done. He kept at me and I asked, “If your brother killed someone, would you be guilty?” That didn’t deter him so finally I lost it and retorted, “Fine let’s look at what the Hungarian Magyars did to the Gypsies.” He got more worked up yelling and walking around that the two women were telling him to shut up in Belgian. The bartender came out and said he was going to call the police. I was bewildered. Here were some of the friendliest people I’d met in my travels and some of the nastiest all at once. I couldn’t take the ranting so I thanked those who had been nice and went back to my lodgings. That one incident was bizarre but I’d go back to Antwerp again because I certainly didn’t see it all.

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Traveling in Europe: Delft in White and Blue

These posts on Europe will come sporadically as I have to digitally fix the photos for web viewing and it’s a busy season for me right now. To view my full album of Delft, click the first picture.

Europe 2011: Delft

After Amsterdam, I took a train to Delft. I was stunned at the thousands of bikes at the station. I doubt if you gathered all the bikes in Vancouver that it would even equal this number. People commute by bike and train a lot. Because there had been some confusion in email as to the dates I was staying at the B&B I ended up doing last-minute couch surfing for my first night. Robbert had just finished his university and was still in a student apartment. He was helpful in giving me directions to get to his place and the next day into Delft central. He tried to teach me some Dutch and pronunciations but some forms are so foreign in English I just had problems getting them to sound close.

Delft is small, when you’re looking at the medieval center. The next day I waited for the B&B owner to show. When she never did, I walked back to the tourist information center, always a good place to visit in any major city. Delft is small enough that they know of all the B&B’s. They tried calling both lines;when they couldn’t reach her they advised me to find someplace else. They ended up helping me find something in my price range (52 Euros) with someone who had just called in. (98 Plantages–not available through any sites) was run by Liesbeth and was beautiful, clean, updated and close by. Liesbeth was an excellent host, giving me some ideas of restaurants to try and directions into Den Haag.

canals, Delft, Holland, history, travel, William of Orange

Delft's picturesque canals have lilies and waterfowl.

Delft was by far the prettiest town I visited in Holland, with Den Bosch a close second. The clean canals were picturesque with lily pads, swans and ducks. I even ran into a heron on the walkway beside one canal and got within two feet. The streets in the old town are cobblestone and shops line the streets. Delftware, that famous blue and white china, is not cheap but plentiful. I saw a guy on a scooter  where the front design was the Delft blue and white.

My first day after the screw-up with B&Bs left me with enough time to see the old and the new churches. (Throughout Holland and Belgium all shops close by 5. There is no evening shopping.) They were rather plain in the style of the no-fun Protestants who had pulled down statuary, removed paintings and white washed churches so that one would only concentrate on god’s glory, not on what humans had made. The one, ironic, concession to ostentation was the tomb of William of Orange, assassinated at the Prinsenhof (a convent he had taken over for a residence).

William of Orange, Dutch royal family, Delft, tomb, travel, history, Holland

William of Orange's tomb was so big that it was hard to photograph it all.

The Dutch started later than some countries in instituting royalty and pretty much voted in the best merchant. At least that’s what I could tell . William’s grand tomb is the central design of the church. Before this date the royal family was buried in Breda but it was still under Spanish rule, so they began putting the royals in Delft, where they are entombed to this day (the dead ones that is). I was beginning to think after Amsterdam’s two and Delft’s churches that I was getting churched out, partly because they were rather bland in a gothic cathedral sort of way. The focus became the pillars, the gothic arches (which are impressive) and the black floors, carved with names, dates, arms and symbols of those who had passed on before.  I wrote a rough set of poems here that I call triptych, after the style of religious paintings (that have three panels) used in many churches of the period. These will be polished at a later date.

I took in the Prinsenhof on my third day. The bullet hole in the wall from William’s assassination is framed and stands out. There are works of art such as paintings, sculptures, silverware and Delftware for which the Dutch are famous, plus the story of William’s life. I believe the new church, starkly plain had many partitions that told the story of the royal family from its beginning to its present day. Like England, they have had a queen since WWII (and before). But reading about all the royals and who killed who or succeed whom was mind numbing after a while. I just enjoyed walking along the canals of Delft and would definitely go back here.

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Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The massacre in Norway is in some ways not new. Unfortunately, it’s a common enough scenario; yet another example of the endemic problem of judgment, racism or bigotry that infects this planet. Granted, there are people of unstable or extreme personality types such as narcissists who believe only they matter, or sociopaths who don’t really care about anything but their own gratification. I don’t know the statistics but I’m betting half of all massacres, multiple murders and suicide pacts are from unstable personalities. Religious temperament is probably responsible for the other half.

peace, war, fighting, getting along, coexisting, bigotry, racism

Creative Commons: co_exist_by_c3b4

If we rule out that all religious beliefs make you a little crazy or that racism is only practiced by nutjobs, then we have to believe that people have extreme views and sane minds. But what’s at the basis of all the bigotry and hate crimes?

It’s a belief that someone is “other.” I am green and you are purple. Therefore you are different, not like me, maybe an alien and I can’t trust you. Or: You believe the flying spaghetti monster is god and I believe in Cthulhu. Therefore you are evil and should be shot down for spreading spaghetti monster worship, which is wrong. This I believe.

These examples are all about judgment and belief. A belief that I am better, my way of seeing the world is right and yours is wrong for some reason. I believe I am more favored by god but somehow you’re not or bringing in the wrong god. But what does it offend? Our sensibilities?

I may not like you walking around and showing your plumber’s crack. I may believe your religion of wearing orange cones on your head is goofy. I might see you eating cucumbers as a sign of true evil or that when you sing you are opening a hole to the world of darkness. But no matter what I BELIEVE, what really matters is, are you hurting me?

I mean tangible hurt, not some imagined slight to your soul or psyche. To me this is what it all gets down to and what we should remember. I might not like it, but is it hurting me or do I still have my freedom of movement and thought? I believe, like or worship this. Does it hurt anyone? No. Then I can do it. I can marry the rock in my garden, make sweet love to a chocolate croissant or worship the almighty slug. I might be seen as deranged but I’m not dangerous.

So everyone needs to take a deep breath and in that moment of judgment and hate boiling up in your guts, just step back and ask: Is he/she hurting anyone? If not. Then leave them alone to live their lives as they please. After all, it’s what you would want people to give you.

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Why We Need Gods, Queens and Rock Stars

rock stars, gods, fame, idols, movie stars, queens, kings, royalty, adoration

creative commons: by crymz http://crymz.deviantart.com/

Not everyone wants to be famous but of those who would like to be few become famous. Some people, like the tyrants and murderers of the world, become infamous, famed not for the adoration of the masses but reviled. Not everyone wants to lead and not all those who lead want fame and glory but it often comes with the territory.

Many people want their independence, to work well within their expertise and live comfortably but they may not have the knowledge, vision, verve, ability, charisma, want or other traits that it takes to be a leader. We are often content to walk in our grooves, do what we do and hope that a few people (friends, family) might consider us great, or at least special. It is the way of human nature.

Likewise it is the way of humans to follow leaders, as history can attest to again and again. Once, it was not just enough to lead and know your fellow humans cemented you firmly on a pedestal as one worthy. It was even better to marry oneself to a god through belief or in actual ritualized marriages. After all, if you were god blessed or ruled by divine authority, what man or woman could nay-say you? Thus it’s been since human beings started congregating into groups and villages until they created cities, fiefdoms, kingdoms and empires.

As the religious fervor has waned over time (in some countries because we see a resurgence time and again) we have needed other beings to admire, adore, raise up on pedestals and idolize. Why? Because they epitomize the best and give us hopes and dreams that we too can be great. Greek mythology is a prime example of this. You had your gods but they tended to have sex with humans from time to time and make demigods. Sometimes a hero, like Herakles, started out as human but then achieved some divine status. Look, you too can become godlike!

So, what is godlike in terms of our modern world: beauty, riches, talent. Oddly we don’t tend to raise up the rocket scientists and neurosurgeons the same way that we do the rock stars and movie stars. They get to play act instead of saving the world and yet they shine brighter in our esteem. Because we all want to be beautiful, talented, rich. Oh and what’s next to god, above even those rock and movie stars? Royalty.

Perhaps this renewed idolizing of Prince William and Kate has captured the mundane population’s heart and sense of romance. But consider this. Any of you can become a surgeon, a politician, a leader, a musician, an actor (whether you’re beautiful or not) with the right training and perseverance. You can gain riches and some fame. But very few if any of you will ever be royalty. You can’t train for it, you can’t be elected to it, you can work your way into the position. Royalty is inherited. You’re born to the right parents or you’re not. You great granddaddy was the grand poobah so you get to be (but only if you’re the eldest and only if you’re a boy first; girls still come second). You don’t have to be beautiful, smart, talented or a good leader. You just have to have the right blood, which is just like anyone else’s. It’s one thing to be born to a millionaire and inherit the business; it’s another thing altogether to inherit a country and riches paid to the coffers from the pockets of the common person without having to prove your worth.

So consider this the next time you idolize the shallow trappings of beauty and money. There is often far more worth in your neighbor than someone born to a privilege fabricated from beliefs of their blood being better than yours. The other thing about placing people on pedestals; sooner or later someone wants to pull them down, especially if their flaws show. And guess what; we’re all flawed.

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